Willie Nelson, Wembley Arena, London

Wembley Arena, London

He may be approaching his 74th birthday, but Willie Nelson is still an intriguing bundle of contradictions. He remains true to his cowboy outlaw image, with his grey beard, black jeans and Stetson hat (soon to be replaced by a red bandana) and the Texas flag unfurled as he ambled on stage for a rough and ready treatment of his customary opener, Whiskey River.

It was as easy-going as if he were playing for a few friends in a local bar. And that's part of his appeal. He retains his wild lifestyle (there was trouble with the police only last year). However, the cheerfully casual way in which he approached the songs was matched by a remarkable sophistication and variety in his singing and playing. Although he is a country star, he tackled a bit of everything, his voice sounding as if it belonged to a man at least 20 years younger.

He breezed through Crazy, showed off his jazz guitar on Night Life, then moved on to Merle Haggard's up-beat Workin' Man Blues followed by a fine version of Kris Kristofferson's Help Me Make It Through the Night. Whenever the set became too schmaltzy he changed direction, switching to gospel favourites or a tribute to Hank Williams.

His own songs included Me and Paul, a rousing chronicle of his early exploits with drummer Paul English, playing in a subtle, low-key band that also included Nelson's sister Bobbie on piano. His new material included the witty but thoughtful I Ain't Superman, written after a warning from his doctor that seems to have had little effect on one of the true originals of American music.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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